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Beyond Four Walls: ‘Home’ and ‘Unhomeliness’ in a Rapidly Transforming China

About changing concepts of home in China: from ‘home is where my pig is’ to ‘has your frog returned home yet?’

Manya Koetse

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A new global research report by IKEA has found that, increasingly, the feeling of home is no longer restricted to the four walls of residential buildings. In China, the study finds, approximately one-third of people in cities feel more ‘at home’ at other places than the space they live in. How can we translate these findings into present-day China? An overview by What’s on Weibo editor Manya Koetse.

According to a global research report released by IKEA Group this week, traditional ideas of where people “feel at home” are drastically changing. The annual study on international living trends found that 35% of people feel more at home elsewhere than the place where they live, with a staggering 29% of people not feeling at home where they live at all.

The findings show remarkable changes associated with “feeling at home” compared to earlier annual reports, indicating that demographic, technological, and cultural forces are rapidly transforming conceptions of “home” in various places across the world.

China is part of this trend. The report, undertaken by London-based agency C Space, is based on studies that were conducted from March to August of 2018. Besides China, a large-scale survey was undertaken in 21 other countries among 22,854 respondents (11,325 from urban areas), and qualitative research was conducted in China, US, Germany, Denmark, Italy, and the UK.

The results of the study might resonate with what many experience in Europe and the US, but also with the societal changes they have seen in China over the past decade – although the reasons for these developments are different between these places.

These are transformations that do not only become clear from the trends on Chinese social media, but, for me personally, also from the lives of friends and social circles in Beijing and Shanghai, and the rapid pace in which I have seen them moving from residence to residence, from neighborhood to neighborhood, and sometimes even from city to city, often with seemingly little emotional attachment to the houses where they have lived for years as urban dwellers. Where is that place called ‘home’?

 

Going “Home” in China

“‘Home’ is much more than the place where people sleep at night: it is there where the (grand)mother cooks.”

 

Every year at the time of China’s Spring Festival, there is one hashtag that always goes trending on Chinese social media platform Weibo: “Return Home”, #回家, Huíjiā.

For many people, the Spring Festival is the only time of the year they can return to their hometowns to celebrate the new year with their family and friends. As many now know, the travel season leading up to the Festival, the chūnyùn (春运), is the biggest annual mass migration of the world. Many of China’s urban areas become deserted as people return to their native provinces to be ‘home.’

Image via China news

The word for ‘home’ in Chinese, ‘家’ jiā, means both ‘home’ and ‘family.’ The character has a history of some 3000 years; first depicting a house with a pig inside, as this article explains, and then evolving into the character it is today (see image below). In its earliest meanings, the ‘home’ was simply there where pigs were raised and where family activities took place; there where the family house was situated.

Via zhihu.com

This duality in the concept of jiā still plays an important role in how the meaning of ‘home’ is understood in China today. In a small-scale survey that was done for the dissertation research of Wei Zhao (2015), for example, participants had various answers to the simple question of “what is jiā?”, some describing it as a space or place, some seeing it as an abstract concept (representing, amongst others, ‘harmony’), with others understanding it as the (extended) family itself (Zhao 2015, 125).

A simple search for the words ‘going home’ (回家) on Chinese social media today comes up with dozens of photos of mostly food, with Weibo users describing ‘home’ as that place where they eat the traditional home cooking from their family, also suggesting that ‘home’ is much more than the place where people sleep at night: it is there where the (grand)mother cooks, it is there where the land is, it is there where the family residence might have been situated for decades.

According to Wei Zhao’s research, people from Yanxia, a town in the Zhejiang region of China, often associate ‘home’ with the various forms of land, both in the present and past, that is tied to where their families live or lived. It is a “place-bound relationship,” Zhao writes (2015, 123), “enriched with social meanings,” where the land incorporates those places that “support various kinds of daily activities, help construct social relations, and sustain cultural performances.”

Many people who have moved from outside their family homes or villages to far away places or cities are no longer physically connected with this concept of ‘home’, drastically impacting how people experience “feelings of home” and how it relates to the places where they actually reside.

 

Unhomeliness and the City

“36% of Chinese renters get a sense of “belonging” from other spaces outside their residential home.”

 

Due to many different factors, including the privatization of farmland, surplus of rural labor, and increased labor demands in the city, China is currently seeing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history.

Rural residents who have lived in the same homes for decades are being relocated to new settlements, old houses are being demolished, and China’s so-called ‘ghost cities‘ are rapidly coming to life.

For the first time in Chinese history, more people are living in China’s cities than they do in the countryside. In 2020, it is expected that 60 percent of the Chinese population will be permanent urban residents (Xinhua 2018).

A significant percentage of China’s population is what is called a “floating population,” China’s internal migratory population; those who are living as temporary residents or ‘migrant workers’ in the cities (without changes in their ‘hukou‘ or household registration). According to data provided by Chinese state media, that number of people is expected to hit 291 million in 2020 (Xinhua 2015).

As described by Yang et al (2014) in their article in Transforming Chinese Cities, there is a gap in living conditions between household residents and the ‘floating’ population, with the latter holding an 11,4 square meter size residence per capita, compared to 27.1 square meter per capita for the household population. Besides size, the ‘floating’ population also has less access to the more basic necessities in a home such as a kitchen (more than 45% has no kitchen) or flushing toilet (nearly 75% have to do without) (Yang et al 2014, 71).

In cities such as Beijing, underground nuclear bunkers from the Cold War era still serve as a residence to many urban dwellers. According to some sources, there are still one million people living in this underground world in Beijing alone, often dealing with poor air circulation and tiny living spaces with no daylight.

Via http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/01/underground-beijing/.

Although the nuclear bunkers are an extreme example, the living conditions of many people in Chinese cities, whether they are migrant workers, students, or those who have restricted access to urban housing, are far from ideal; think of overcrowdedness and a lack of what many would consider basic conditions for comfortable housing.

So, without even considering the idea that the perfect concept of “home” might always be a place outside of one’s (urban) residence, it perhaps does not come as a surprise that many people do not always feel at home at all in their own house.

In China, the IKEA-commissioned study* found that 32% of those surveyed felt more at home outside their residential home, and that 36% of Chinese renters get a sense of “belonging” from other spaces than where they actually live (in other physical and/or virtual environments).* Since 89% of those surveyed lives in an urban location, these sentiments are especially telling about experiences of ‘home’ in the city.

 

A Sense of Belonging

“I felt that my house was the place I rented, but it was not my ‘home’.”

 

When residences are experienced as “unhomely,” it could mean many things. There might be a lack of comfort, a lacking sense of community, a feeling of security/privacy that is not there, or a missing feeling of ‘rootedness’ in the place where one lives.

The findings of IKEA’s study in China perhaps makes more sense when one considers the study’s results that found that 62% of those surveyed believe that community is an extension of the residential home. This strengthens the idea that ‘home’ is not the four walls one lives in, but an emotional landscape that is influenced by all kinds of factors.

An interesting 2013 study by scholar Xiaobo Su argues that ideas of ‘home’ are made through social and emotional relationships, and that ‘houses’ in China are often perceived as exchangeable commodities to which one does not necessarily have these emotional connections, whereas ‘home’ is a sphere where one feels free and at ease.

People, therefore, go looking for that ‘experience of home’ through other ways; it might be through friends and social events, through (digital) communities, or through tourism: traveling to those places where people do get that sense of home. Su (2013) suggests that Chinese domestic tourists consume the idea of ‘home’ by visiting (heritage) tourist sites that embody that image for them.

Earlier this year, the huge success of the mobile ‘Travelling Frog’ game in China became a media hype. The game revolves around the travels of a little frog who lives in a stone cave and goes on frequent trips. Although perhaps far-fetched, some Chinese media tied the success of this game to a need for belonging and family, saying that higher house prices, intensive jobs, and the collapse of the pyramid family structure had led to a decline in young people starting their own family and homes; and started looking to these type of games or digital communities to fill the gap. “Has your frog returned home yet?” even became somewhat of a common question among young people in January of 2018.

The Traveling Frog at home.

Besides the rise of various online communities, the rapid digitalization of China has also made it easier for families and friends to stay in touch through social media and messaging apps. This also brought about that physical proximity to relatives has become less of a priority now than in earlier (nondigital) times (Tao et al 2014, 197).

A China Merchants Bank commercial that went viral in late 2017 titled ‘The world is no bigger than a fried tomato omelette’ (“世界再大,大不过一盘番茄炒蛋”) shows how a mother helps her son to cook a home-made dish via mobile video while he is studying abroad. The viral campaign hit home for many exchange students.

Despite the fact that the dwellings of many people in present-day China lack space, privacy, or comfort, it does not necessarily mean that those living in these houses are dissatisfied. An interesting study by Li Tao et al (2014) on residential satisfaction of migrant workers in China found that kinship, family, friendship, and mobility, all play a significant role in how people feel about how they live. Additionally, instead of a focus on the sizes of their houses or the privacy they have, there is also a heightened focus on the low costs and transportation convenience of where one lives.

The fact that ‘home’ is an ever-changing and hot topic also becomes evident from the many posts on Chinese social media dedicated to this issue. As said, food is a recurring topic in these posts. On October 9, one Weibo netizen named Zhang Xizi (@张西子) wrote:

What do you think is ‘home’? For me, at one time, I felt that my house was the place I rented, but it was not my ‘home’. If I was hungry, I would just order something, and I hardly touched my stove at all. But then I started feeling that although I rent my home, it is still my life. Home should be a place with character. And then I started to enjoy cooking, especially when other people enjoy the food with me, is when I feel happy. So feel welcome to come to my home.”

Another Weibo user nicknamed ‘I love rabbits’ (@我爱兔子) writes:

What is home? It’s a person’s most private space. What is happiness? It is the warmth one feels with every dish at the dining table after returning home.”

A person named Sofo concludes: “What home is? If the people I love are there, then even a tent on the beach could be my home.”

Interested to read more relating to this topic?
* Viral Merchants Bank Commercial Hits Close to Home for Chinese Students Abroad
* Chinese Ghost Cities Coming to Life
* Chinese Media Ascribe ‘Traveling Frog’ Game Hype to China’s Low Birth Rates
* “I Am Fan Yusu” – Beijing Migrant Worker’s Writing Takes Chinese Internet by Storm

Find the IKEA Life at Home report here.

By Manya Koetse

* Note that not all of the market specific results have been publicly issued by IKEA. What’s on Weibo author has access to the market-specific results. Please email us if you have further questions about this data and the report’s findings or contact IKEA.
* The report says that “36% of renters look to other physical spaces or even virtual environments for a sense of belonging”; for Chinese home-owners, this is 22%.

References

IKEA. 2018. Beyond Four Walls: Life at Home Report 2018. October. https://lifeathome.ikea.com/home/ [9.10.18].

Su, Xiaobo. 2014. “Tourism, Modernity and the Consumption of Home in China.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(1): 50-61.

Tao, Li, Francis K.W. Wong, Eddie C.M. Hui. 2014. “Residential Satisfaction of Migrant Workers in China: A Case Study of Shenzhen.” Habitat International 42:193–202

Xinhua. 2015. “China’s floating population to hit 291 million in 2020: report.” China Daily, Nov 12. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2015-11/12/content_22438127.htm [9.10.18].

Xinhua. 2018. “Urbanization rate of China’s agricultural province exceeds 50 pct.” Xinhua, March 5. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-03/05/c_137017957.htm [9.10.18].

Yang, Shangguan, Chunlan Wang and Mark Y. Wang.2014.”Synergistic Evolution of Shanghai Urban Economic Development Transition and Social Spatial Structure.” In Transforming Chinese Cities, Mark Y. Wang, Pookong Kee, and Jia Gao (eds). London: Routledge.

Zhao, Wei. 2015. “Home Beyond the House: The Meaning of Home for People Living in Yanxia Village, Zhejiang Province, China.” Dissertation / Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Architecture, Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Backgrounder

More Than Just a Visit: Explaining the Chinese ‘Cuànfǎng’

‘Cuànfǎng’ became a popular word on Chinese social media and in official Chinese discourse this year. But what is it?

Jin Luo

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Since Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the word ‘cuànfǎng’ has been all over Chinese social media to refer to this controversial visit. But ‘cuànfǎng’ is more than just ‘visiting’ alone. Jin Luo explains.

It was a sleepless night for many Chinese people when U.S. House Speaker Pelosi flew to Taiwan on August 2nd of 2022. A new Chinese word created in recent years, cuànfǎng (窜访) appeared in the official statement that was issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 11 pm that night, and subsequently it appeared all over social media.

Meanwhile, a pop song released more than 30 years ago titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (“今夜你会不会来”) suddenly became a Weibo hot topic before it was taken offline. What is this word lost in translation, and why did people suddenly get nostalgic over an old romantic song?

 
Cuànfǎng: A ‘Sneaky Visit’
 

Here is the original wording in Chinese and the official translation to English from the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the evening on 2 August:

In disregard of China’s strong opposition and diplomatic discontent, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region” (“美国国会众议长佩洛西不顾中方强烈反对和严正交涉,窜访中国台湾地区.”) The word ‘visited’ in Chinese that is used here is “cuànfǎng” 窜访.

While the English verb “visit” is a neutral word by itself, the Chinese “cuànfǎng” 窜访 has much stronger connotations. According to the Wiktionary, the word is a derogatory, officialese way to say “to visit.” But it is not an easy word to translate, as there is no direct equivalent in English, and both the literal and implied meaning of the word need to be understood.

Cuànfǎng is actually a compound word: cuàn 窜 refers to fleeing, escaping, hiding, or running away; fǎng 访 refers to inquiring, seeking, or visiting.

Cuan as a compound character (Sohu).

To make matters more complicated, cuàn by itself is also a compound character. It is written as ‘竄’ in traditional Chinese: the top radical ‘穴’ means ‘hole,’ and the lower part is the character ‘鼠’ which means ‘mouse.’ The character, having the shape of a mouse hiding in a hole, therefore has the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘escaping.’

The origins of the character ‘cuan’ explained, image via Sohu.com.

The mouse or rat is an animal that is more often associated with negative things in Chinese culture. They are often considered sneaky, dirty, running around everywhere, and able to reproduce quickly. With mice so often carrying a negative association, cuàn ‘窜’ also refers to a kind of hiding and escaping that is negative or objectionable.

The second character fǎng 访 is a neutral word that simply means “to visit.”

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley captured the underlying meaning of this word in writing: “The Chinese word used in the official statements for ‘visit’ — cuanfang — connotes a sneaky or illicit encounter, not an aboveboard meeting.”

 
The Evolution of Cuànfǎng
 

Although it is a relatively new word, cuànfǎng already existed before the Pelosi incident and was not created in light of this controversial visit.

Since the word’s first appearance, translators have had some difficulties in properly translating the term into different languages.

Research papers in translation studies and international relations in China suggested that cuànfǎng is a “new derogatory term invented in recent years, specifically for the purpose of maintaining national security and unity, and condemning and exposing the national separatists” and “demonstrated the big wisdom of Chinese diplomatic discourse users; vividly described the image of the separatists, that they go on the run sneakily, just like thieves and mice” (source, in Chinese).

Other sources interpret it as “the unjust, improper visit conducted in order to reach hidden political agenda, to agitate and peddle the separatist ideas,” and:

1. You went somewhere where you were not supposed to go;
2. The visit was not accepted or welcomed by the (Chinese) government;
3. The purpose is to shake justice and create conflicts
” (source, in Chinese).

Cuàn was mainly meant to add an emotional aspect to the term and shows the contempt of the person who uses it.

Image via Wainao.

The word was first prominently used in Chinese official discourse when the Foreign Ministry in 2006 referred to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Israel. Since cuàn has the meaning of fleeing, it is especially suitable when referring to political dissidents who went into exile overseas.

Since then, it has been used again for further visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries (US 2014, Mongolia 2017), as well as for Rebiya Kadeer, Lee Teng-hui, Shinzo Abe, Joshua Wong, and others.

Although it is clear that the term is not only applied to Chinese dissidents, it is generally applied to those who conducted visits that were perceived to be hostile towards China, with Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit serving as a clear example.

Since the Dalai Lama has been living outside of China and conducted numerous visits to other countries, cuànfǎng was previously mostly used in this context until Pelosi’s visit, which ended up being good for more than 80% of the search results of cuànfǎng on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

If cuànfǎng is a word with such strong emotional connotations, why was it simply translated as “visit” in official English-language documents? Some say it is because of the mere difficulty to translate this word, while others say it is the routine sanitization of English translations by the Foreign Ministry.

David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research based in Washington D.C., said that the external goal of Beijing can be different from the internal goal towards the nationalist domestic audiences, and that “more accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”

At this point, it remains up for debate whether this is a linguistic constraint or a political choice.

 
Tonight, Are You Coming or Not?
 

While the term cuànfǎng has been widely used in official discourse, it has also become a popular online word. Chinese netizens seemed to be as passionate as the Chinese Foreign Ministry – and perhaps even more so –  in condemning Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and demanding radical countermeasures.

Chinese netizens were watching the entire event unfold with mixed feelings – on the one hand, there was a strong sense of patriotism and anger, on the other hand, the massive attention to the event also turned it into something that was almost as exciting as a celebrity drama.

On that specific evening of Pelosi’s nearing arrival in Taipei, Chinese netizens were doing two things: watching real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight, and listening to a classic pop song released in 1991 titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (今夜你会不会来) (video). Back in the previous century, Hong Kong singer Leon Lai expressed the emotions of someone waiting for his lover to arrive in this melodic song, singing:

“你是否愿意为我停留

Would you be willing to stay for me

今夜你来告诉我

Tonight, you tell me

你是否愿意陪我走过我的梦

Are you willing to accompany me through my dream?

我的所有

My everything

(Chorus)

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

如果你的心已经离开

If your heart has left already

我宁愿没有未来

I would rather not have a future

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

别让我所有的等待

Don’t let all my wait

变成一片空白

Go all in vain

 

In the middle of the uncertainty about whether Pelosi would come to Taiwan or not, this song served as entertainment for netizens and became a “collective carnival” of people jokingly applying the song to Pelosi, turning her into a ‘mysterious lover’ that might or might not show up. (Later, some were unable to play the song anymore, although it remains unclear if this was due to geographic restrictions or because the song was actually taken offline by censors.)

“Taiwan has been preparing for your cuànfǎng ‘sneaky visit’, are you coming or not tonight?” some netizens wrote, combining the title song with the cuànfǎng term. In doing so, Pelosi became both a ‘sneaky mouse’ and ‘mysterious lover’, both a target of condemnation and subject of fun and banter.

All jokes and cuànfǎng references aside, Pelosi did end up realizing that visit, and its aftermath, including a second Taiwan visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, has had a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations that were already strained before the move.

Will there be more cuànfǎng to Taiwan? It’s likely not an issue of if, but when. For next time, at least we’ve got cuànfǎng covered.

 

By Jin Luo 

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay

 

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Backgrounder

A Baby for Sale, a Mother Chained Up – How Chinese Netizens Are Pushing Specific Social Issues to the Forefront

The stories of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother both developed in real-time while netizens pushed them to the front page, making them too big for state media to ignore.

Manya Koetse

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It only takes a spark to start a wildfire. From Liu Xuezhou to the Xuzhou mother, China’s online spheres have seen multiple major trending topics this year that started with one short video and then caused a social media storm with netizens highlighting and amplifying specific stories to address bigger social problems.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

It was December 6th of 2021 when a teenage boy posted a short video on Chinese social media. With a straight back, clear voice, and serious face, he looked directly into the camera and said:

Hello everyone, I am Liu Xuezhou and I am looking for my biological parents. I was born in between 2004 and 2006 and around the age of three months old, I was bought by my parents, my adoptive parents, in Datong in Shanxi. I am healthy. I don’t have any congenital physical defects or diseases; I don’t have any obvious birthmarks or scars. At the age of four, my adoptive parents passed away due to an accident. I am now living in Nangong, Xingtai, in Hebei Province. I study in Shijiazhuang. I wish I’d found my biological parents sooner, to make up for what I missed. I hope you can help me spread my message so that those who suspect they might be my parents can see it.

This video would be the start of a story followed by millions of Chinese netizens. It is the story of Liu Xuezhou (刘学州). The search for his parents and his death became one of the biggest topics on China’s social media of the past months.

Why did the tragic story of one teenage boy capture the entire nation? There are multiple reasons. By posting his call for help in finding his biological parents, Liu involved Chinese netizens in his journey from the start, allowing them to follow his story in real-time through his social media and news reports. Another aspect of Liu’s story is the resilience he showed despite his tough life, something that many admired about him.

But more importantly, Liu’s story is part of a recent broader interest in the stories behind the widespread problem of trafficking in women and children in China, with more people raising awareness on the tragedies caused by these practices and demanding justice for the victims.

Besides Liu’s story, the story of a Xuzhou mother-of-eight being tied up and living in abominable conditions in a shed also dominated online discussions for weeks on end.

 

Liu’s Story: Sold, Orphaned, Abandoned

 

After Liu Xuezhou posted the aforementioned video on Douyin, the Chinese version of the popular TikTok short video platform, it soon went viral and various Chinese news sites started reporting on Liu’s search for his biological family.

Liu’s resilience was impressive. In interviews, he said that his story did not define him and that he was determined to make something of his life. Since 2018, the young Liu was working to earn money while also going to school. His plan was to be admitted to university.

Liu Xuezhou, picture posted on his Weibo account.

After his adoptive parents died in a firework explosion, Liu was raised by his grandparents and was sent to boarding school. Liu’s childhood was not a happy one. Being so young without parents, he was a target of school bullies and had to change schools at least four times until, by grade six, he had finally found a school where he could thrive.

Many people supported Liu and wanted to help the teenage boy, who was thought to have been kidnapped as a baby and then bought by his adoptive parents through an intermediary at a Datong hotel for 30,000 yuan ($4735).

Although Liu’s birth certificate said he was born in September of 2005, nobody was sure how old Liu actually was, and his grandparents did not remember the details surrounding his adoption. By late 2021, as a 16-something-year-old, Liu felt it was time to get some answers and find his biological parents. How did he end up being adopted? Was he abducted? Were his parents still out there searching for him?

Through his own efforts – sped up by finding his vaccination records – and with some help of the police, Liu was able to trace down his biological parents. On the evening of December 15, Liu sent a message to a journalist reporting on the case: “I found my mum and dad.”

His parents’ story, however, was not what Liu had expected at all. After DNA tests confirmed that they were in fact his biological parents, Liu was ready to meet them. But what was supposed to be a happy reunion turned out to be a bitter disappointment.

Liu’s biological parents, who were living in Datong, were not together anymore. Liu soon learned that he had not been abducted as a child, but that he had been sold on purpose by his father. His parents were unmarried when they had him, and Liu’s father turned out to have used the money they earned by selling their baby to marry Liu’s birth mother. They married and had another son, but then ended up divorcing. Both remarried again, and Liu’s father even got divorced two more times after that.

Although some of the unhappy circumstances surrounding Liu’s reunion with his parents came out through his posts on social media throughout January of this year, most of the details surrounding his situation only became clear when Liu posted a farewell letter on his Weibo account on January 24th, just a few minutes past midnight.

Liu Xuezhou’s last Weibo post including a farewell letter.

Titled “Born with little, return with nothing,” Liu posted a lengthy letter explaining his situation.

In this letter, Liu said that besides being sold as a child and becoming an orphan at the age of four, he was also severely bullied by classmates and molested by a teacher at school. His aunt, whom he loved as a mother, also left him behind after she moved away due to a broken marriage.

As he spiraled into depression, Liu felt a spark of hope when he saw the news about Sun Zhuo (孙卓), whose story became one of the major trending news stories of 2021. In 2007, when Sun was only four, he was stolen off the street by a human trafficker. His biological parents never gave up hope they would find their son again and sacrificed everything to be able to fund their search efforts. The Chinese film Dearest (亲爱的) was partly based on their story.

After a years-long search, Sun was found in 2021 due to the help of authorities and face recognition technology that helped trace the person suspected of abducting him. In an unexpected twist, Sun stated that he would prefer to stay with his adoptive parents, who had raised him for a decade. The story triggered many online discussions and raised more awareness on the issue of the trafficking of children in China in times of the country’s one-child policy. Sun’s biological father spoke to the media saying: “For 2022, my biggest wish is that all the abducted children can finally be found.”

Image of the reunion of Sun Zhuo with his parents, who never stopped searching for him (image via Sohu).

It was Sun Zhuo’s story that inspired Liu to search for his own parents, and it was also Sun Zhuo’s story that brought more attention for Liu’s initial video, which struck a chord with many who hoped that he could also be reunited with his parents and actually stay with them.

Liu described how his biological father did not seem happy when Liu first contacted him, and seemed reluctant to meet. His biological father eventually did come to see him, but their communication afterward was not smooth. When his father told Liu that he was sold as a baby so that he could pay for the bride price to marry Liu’s mother, Liu was heartbroken and could not sleep for several days: he was not kidnapped, and his parents never searched for him.

Liu and his biological father on December 26, 2021.

His mother also was not elated that her biological son had found his way back to her. Liu felt unwanted, again, and was also searching for a home to live and was not sure who to turn to anymore. After he asked his biological father for help in buying or renting a place to live, he was blocked on WeChat. Liu then decided to take his parents to court.

Sharing screenshots on social media of the developments between him and his parents, Liu was condemned and bullied by netizens, who accused him of only wanting to find his biological parents for financial gains.

It was all too much for the teenage boy. In his farewell letter, he expressed the hope that the traffickers and biological parents would be punished for their deeds. Liu was later found to have committed suicide at a beach in the city of Sanya, and could no longer be rescued. Liu passed away within a month after meeting his biological parents at the age of just 15 years old.

By now, Liu’s farewell letter has been shared approximately 174,000 times on Weibo, it was ‘liked’ over 2,4 million times and has received thousands of comments.

The topic of Liu’s death exploded on social media and led to national outrage. Many people sympathized with the boy and were angry at all who failed him: “Poor child, abandoned and sold off by his parents, bullied and humiliated by his schoolmates, molested and discriminated by his teacher, cyberbullied by keyboard warriors. Now he’s dead!”

The injustice of Liu’s situation – starting with how he was sold as a child – is what angered people most. China Digital Times recently described how on the Weibo page of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who raised the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak, many people also mention Liu Xuezhou. Dr. Li Wenliang was one of the eight so-called ‘whistleblowers’ who tried to warn his colleagues about the Wuhan virus outbreak in late 2019, but was censored and reprimanded by local police for making “false comments.” He later became infected with the virus himself while working at the Wuhan Central Hospital and passed away on February 7th of 2020, sparking a wave of anger and sadness on social media.

Illustration that went viral on social media at the time of Dr. Li’s death (read more here).

Over the past two years, Dr. Li’s Weibo page has become a digital Wailing Wall where people send little messages to remember Dr. Li, tell about their own anxieties and worries, but also address social injustices. As recorded by China Digital Times, one among thousands of comments said:

Two years ago today, I had a sleepless night because of you, and my Weibo account once got shut down because I posted something about you. Over the past two years, I’ve often wondered: will this world become a better place? But between the Liu Xuezhou incident and the woman in Xuzhou with eight kids, I’ve been disappointed time and time again. If you happen to see Liu Xuezhou, please be good to him.

Looking at Dr. Li’s Weibo account today, it is not just Liu Xuezhou who is brought up by commenters; ‘the woman in Xuzhou’ is also mentioned by dozens of people as someone experiencing injustice. But who is she?

 

The Chained-Up Mother in Xuzhou

 

In late January of 2022, right around the same time when Liu Xuezhou was one of the biggest topics on Chinese social media, a TikTok video showing a woman chained up in a shed went viral online and triggered massive outrage with thousands of people demanding answers about the woman’s circumstances.

The video, filmed by a local vlogger in the village of Huankou in Xuzhou, showed how the woman was kept in a dirty hut without a door in the freezing cold. She did not even wear a coat, and she seemed confused and unable to express herself.

Other TikTok videos that came out around the same time showed how the woman’s husband, a man by the name of Dong Zhimin (董志民), was playing and talking with their eight children in the family home right next to the hut where the mother was confined.

The video caused a storm on social media. Many netizens worried about the woman’s circumstances. Why was she chained up? Was she a victim of human trafficking? Was she being abused? How could she have had eight babies? Was she forced to have so many children? While netizens were speculating about the case and venting their anger, Weibo shut down some of the hashtags dedicated to this topic, but the topic soon popped up everywhere, and people started making artworks and writing essays in light of the case.

Following public demands, local authorities started looking into the case. An initial statement by Feng County, where the village of Huankou is located, was issued on January 28 and it said that the woman, named Yang (杨), married her husband in 1998 and that there was no indication that she was a victim of human trafficking.

The woman was dealing with mental problems and would display sudden violent outbursts, beating children and older people. The family allegedly thought it was best to separate her from the family home during these episodes, letting her stay chained up in a small hut next to the house.

The first statement raised more questions than it answered and more people, including influential Weibo bloggers and media insiders, started investigating the case. Meanwhile, it became clear that husband Dong Zhimin was giving interviews to other vloggers flocking to Huankou. Besides talking about his eight children (seven sons, one daughter) as future providers for the family, he also used his newly-acquired ‘fame’ to make money through social media. This only led to more online anger about Dong exploiting his wife and children.

Screenshots from the original Douyin (TikTok) video.

As the social media storm intensified, more official statements ensued. On January 30, Feng County local officials responded to the controversy in a second statement, in which the Xuzhou mother was identified as Yang *Xia (杨某侠) who allegedly once was “a beggar on the streets” in the summer of 1998 when she was taken in by Dong family and ended up marrying their 30-something son Dong Zhimin.

Local officials did not properly check and verify Yang’s identity information when registering the marriage certificate and the local family planning department also made errors in implementing birth control measures and following up with the family. The statement said that Yang had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was now receiving treatment.

A third, fourth, and even fifth statement issued by authorities on February 7th, 10th, and 23rd confirmed what many on Weibo had suspected all along, namely that Yang had indeed been a victim of human trafficking. Xuzhou authorities said their investigation had brought them to the village of Yagu in Yunnan, a place that was mentioned on Yang’s marriage certificate.

Yang was identified as Xiaohuamei (小花梅), born and raised in Yagu. Yang’s DNA had been compared to that of the family of Xiaohuamei, and the DNA match confirmed that Yang was indeed Xiaohuamei. According to the statements, Xiaohuamei married and moved to another city in 1994, but she divorced and returned to her village two years later, which is when she allegedly also showed signs of mental illness.

Her parents, now deceased, then allegedly ordered a female fellow villager to take their daughter to Jiangsu to get married there. According to the woman, she took Xiaohuamei with her on a train from Yunnan to Jiangsu’s Donghai, but she allegedly ‘went missing’ shortly after arrival. The woman never reported her as missing to the police and she never notified the family.

That woman, along with another man and Dong Zhimin, are now held criminally responsible for illegal detainment and human trafficking. Xiaohuamei was reportedly sold to a man in Donghai for 5,000 yuan ($790) in 1998. Though Xiaohuamei managed to escape, she was sold twice again, eventually ending up with the Dong family.

One of the many images shared on Chinese social media to raise awareness of the case of the Xuzhou mother and other women like her.

While details surrounding the case of the ‘chained Xuzhou mother of eight’ are still being discussed on Chinese social media, it has become clear that by now, ‘Yang’ has come to represent many more women like her. Over the past few weeks, the stories of other women who also might be a victim of human trafficking have surfaced, and the public outcry demanding justice for trafficked women is ongoing.

 

One Social Media Spark Starting a Wildfire

 

Both in the case of Liu Xuezhou and the Xuzhou mother, it should be noted that their stories initially did not catch the public’s attention because official news media reported them, but because of first-hand videos being posted on TikTok (Douyin) and then being picked up and shared by bigger accounts.

Both Liu’s video and the short video featuring the mother of eight were posted on accounts that were not necessarily very popular: starting as a small spark in an online environment with over 900 million social media users, they were shared, commented on, and then spread like wildfire.

Both stories developed in real-time while netizens were following the case, both stories eventually became too big for Chinese state media to ignore, and both Liu and Yang highlighted bigger social issues in contemporary China, mainly those relating to human trafficking.

Since these cases went viral, there has been a heightened focus on the problem of human trafficking, which mostly occurs in China’s poorer areas with weak governance. The trafficking of especially women and children has various purposes, including forced marriage and illegal adoption in areas where there is a shortage of women (along with a preference for baby boys).

China Daily recently reported that lawmakers and advisers are now pushing for heavier punishment for human trafficking crimes, suggesting that the current penalties imposed on the buyers of women and children are too weak; the maximum prison sentence for those who purchase abducted women and children is three years.

In the case of the Xuzhou mother, there has been online censorship but the ongoing intense public outrage eventually did lead to higher-level research into the case. The mother was rescued from her terrible situation, the human traffickers involved are being held responsible, and so are 17 officials, who will be punished by authorities for their wrongdoings in the case.

As for Liu Xuezhou, his adoptive family members have recently filed a request at the Sanya Public Security Bureau to launch another investigation into his case. Their request was accepted on February 23rd, with multiple people being suspected of criminal offenses, eventually leading to his death. On Weibo, many people are now demanding punishment for Liu’s biological parents.

In late January of this year, following the tragic ending to Liu’s story, Chinese state media1 emphasized how the widespread attention for these kinds of stories in the social media era is also changing how government agencies should interact with the public.

According to Dr. Liu Leming, associate professor at East China University’s Political Science faculty, government agencies need to follow up and respond more quickly to social incidents like these in the internet era: “When public issues emerge, people who are involved in social problems or incidents want to know, more than anything, whether their requests have been seen and who will handle their concerns.”

In light of these recent stories, the public is happy that actions have been taken, but they are not satisfied with how these cases were handled. Many argue that authorities have failed in being transparent, that local governments have not done enough to prevent these cases from happening, and that China should do more to put an end to human trafficking.

And so, they are still posting the stories of children like Liu and women like Xiaohuamei to keep raising awareness and to keep pressuring local authorities and lawmakers to take more action to eradicate these practices.

As Liu is no longer alive and Xiaohuamei, still hospitalized, cannot defend herself, Chinese netizens keep raising their voices for them. In doing so, they have not just impacted how authorities dealt with these specific cases, but they are also changing how cases such as these will be handled in the future.

One Weibo user discussing Liu and the Xuzhou mother wrote: “We need to get to the bottom of these kinds of stories: who is to blame, who made mistakes, and where do we go from here?”

In the meantime, online posts, videos, and artworks honor both Liu and Xiaohuamei, so that their stories will not be forgotten. “Dear little one, springtime has come,” one among thousands of messages still flooding Liu Xuezhou’s Weibo page says: “You have endured too many things that you should have never experienced. It should have been us, the adults, taking care of these things for you. You please go and rest now, we will finish the rest for you.”

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

1 Cao Yin and Li Yang. 2022. “Policymakers, Lawmakers Respond to Opinion Voiced Online.” China Daily Hong Kong, January 28, Page 1-2.

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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